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Ralph Dranow : Why Our Life Stories Matter

Why Our Life Stories Matter

By Ralph Dranow

When I got divorced in 1989 after a 13-year marriage, I was depressed. It was apparent to me how narrowly I'd lived my life, how self-centered and defensive I'd been. Feeling overwhelmed by the burden of the past and despairing of my prospects for the future, I felt numb, lost.

Fortunately, after a few months, things began gradually to shift. I joined a men's group, and the support and community I found there helped ease my pain and loneliness. But what perhaps made a bigger difference was my starting to write poetry. I wanted to write honestly about my life. I'd always admired local poets who seemed to be fearless in their writing, able to dive into the emotional heart of their experience. My previous prose writing, by comparison, felt too head-centered, too concerned with cleverness.

It took me a while to learn the poetic craft, but it was immediately exhilarating to begin writing honestly about my life in a way my short stories hadn't managed to do. I was no longer mainly concerned about getting published but about telling the truth and discovering that truth through my writing. Poetry was a good vehicle for me to do this, because I didn't have to use a lot of words; I could focus on the basic feelings central to the narrative. It was as if I had a friend with me, an observer whose job was to tell the truth in a compassionate way, so I could see myself more clearly, with kind eyes. I wasn't excusing my mistakes but trying to understand them, to perceive my self-defeating patterns and touch them with compassion.

Now I was able to write about difficult experiences which I'd been unable to before, such as dropping out of graduate school and the painful conflict with my mother resulting from this. Also there were poems about my distant relationship with my father and about the sadness of a marriage ending. As I wrote these poems, there was a joyful feeling coursing through my body, a sense of liberation. The writing process allowed me to judge myself less harshly, to feel more compassion for my difficult journey of becoming more human, more conscious. I almost felt as if I were mothering myself, holding myself with great tenderness. And I attempted to extend this same compassion to others as well. There was an obvious healing benefit in viewing my life experience through a wider, more spacious lens. It gave me a vision of greater possibility, of a larger life, one of more joy, compassion, courage. I began writing about joyful experiences as well as difficult ones.

As I became more practiced as a poet, I took on a wider range of subjects, focusing on some central concerns of mine, such as social justice and beauty. Several years ago, I volunteered at a street ministry in San Francisco, making it a practice to listen to people in soup kitchens and on the streets. This resulted in a collection of poems about the homeless and people on the edge in the Tenderloin district. Giving voice to those who are often ignored and dismissed fulfilled a strong need in me.

And also, more and more in poems, I've attempted to give expression to beauty in its various manifestations: the beauty of nature, of character, of art. This allows me to see that there is much beauty in the world if I only open my eyes to it, and to counter my tendency to focus on problems, what's wrong.

So writing about my life, directly or indirectly, has had a strong healing effect on me. And it can have a similar effect on you if you decide to open yourself to this exciting journey of writing your life story in either prose or poetry, or a combination of the two. I chose to do this mainly through poetry, but for many of you prose might feel more suitable. The commitment to discover and heal yourself through your writing could be one of the most important decisions you've ever made. •

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Dranow. All rights reserved.

Ralph DranowRalph Dranow loves to work with people who have written something deep and passionate but feel that the writing is not quite there yet. With his writing and editing skills, he can help make the writing flow so that his clients feel their ideas and feelings have been given their strongest expression. More »

Updated 1/6/14